I Hate To Admit It, But Avoiding Dairy Solved My Gut Problems

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.

After finally kicking two rapid-fire bacterial gut infections last year, I thought I was out of the woods, but my gut had one more awful trick up its sleeve. In the months following my recovery from not one, but two, bouts of clostridium difficile, I noticed that eating anything with dairy in it (yogurt, cheese, even a splash of milk on my cereal) was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable process (read: I was paying more daily visits to the bathroom than I have fingers). I confirmed with my doctor that my new digestive issues weren't a third case of C.diff, and then, on her recommendation, faced the fact that, if I really wanted to get to the root of my problem, I'd have to give a dairy-free lifestyle a try.

For the record: This adjustment was not as rocky for me as it could have been. I was already drinking mostly almond milk (for its taste and longer shelf life). Really, the hardest thing to let go of was Greek yogurt, which I ate every day. Then, of course, there was the occasional cheese plate. All in all, my diet was never incredibly heavy in dairy — I just didn't want to give it up on principle.

As a health writer, the corner of the internet I occupy is also home to countless articles claiming that the solution to all your problems lies in swearing off dairy — even if you aren't vegan or lactose intolerant. No matter what your issue is, the culprit must be dairy. But since there's really no compelling research to support that, to me, going dairy-free just for the heck of it always seemed needlessly limiting.

So, bear in mind that it isn't easy for me to admit that, after fully committing to lactose-free yogurt and cheese-free snacks, I had a changed gut, and the improvement was instantaneous. The bacteria-balancing drugs I was on at that time probably played a supporting role in this miraculous digestive shift, but, months later, I have no additional gut incidents to my name.

Between how much better I feel and the fact that my gastroenterologist gave me her blessing ("If being a Lactaid girl keeps you out of my office, I'm happy"), I'm pretty confident that this was the right choice for me.

But despite what many health bloggers might tell you, one person's success story — mine, in this case — shouldn't serve as proof that cutting out lactose or dairy leads to a healthier life, period. In fact, gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor of medicine Lisa Ganjhu, DO, tells me that you should only eliminate dairy entirely in very specific cases. "It depends on the individual situation," she says. "Unless it’s symptomatic, I wouldn’t recommend you take it out of your diet."

One thing I was right about: Milk is not a friend to a gut weakened by infection. Dr. Ganjhu explains that "people can have a bout of gastroenteritis and temporarily lose their ability to digest dairy, but [that ability] comes back." Immediately following a 24-hour bug or a bout of food poisoning, your gut is in damage-control mode, she says. The infection has completely depleted your natural digestive enzymes, including those that process dairy, which is why your doctor will generally advise you to stick to foods that are easy on your bowels (toast, rice, bananas).

During these times, Dr. Ganjhu says it'll be in your best interest to skip anything that may deplete your good bacteria or inflame your gut while you recover. After a couple days of playing it safe, she says you can start to add dairy products back into your diet, preferably starting with a probiotic, like yogurt or kefir.

Aside from giving your gut a post-infection chance to heal, you'd only need to avoid dairy products altogether if you're lactose intolerant. Luckily, Dr. Ganjhu says it's pretty easy to figure that out on your own: "Have a glass of milk and wait a couple hours." If you feel bloated, nauseous, or even vomit or have diarrhea, welcome to the Lactaid club.

If you aren't satisfied with the results of your at-home test, there's always the breath test. Your doctor will have you drink a beverage that contains lactose, and then ask you to blow into several balloon-like bags. From the quantity of hydrogen detected in the bags, your doctor can determine whether you're lactose intolerant. And, yes, if you are indeed lactose intolerant, the beverage you drink for the breath test will trigger a reaction. So, if you think about it, that's two tests in one.

Surviving a lactose intolerance test without any symptoms means (hooray!) the choice to eliminate dairy from your diet is up to you. Dr. Ganjhu says that there's no reason to believe that dairy is bad for you if you aren't lactose intolerant, but that doesn't mean you have to consume dairy products if you don't want to, either. "You can live a perfectly healthy life without having any dairy in it," she says, as long as you find another source of calcium.

Basically, if you haven't been paying attention to the all the pseudo-wellness noise around dairy anyway, don't stress out. Cutting out dairy completely could mean changing how you shop for groceries, what you order at restaurants, and, of course, what you eat in general, which can amount to a major inconvenience for some people. So, unless your gut suggests otherwise, milk is not your enemy. If you need me, I'll be begrudgingly browsing the dairy alternatives aisle.